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June 6, 2012

Pebble Hunting

Bryce Harper and the Disappearing Phiten Necklace

by Sam Miller

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These are simply three unrelated items that should be in the public record somewhere.

1. Monday, I wrote about Bryce Harper’s toughest at-bats. One was against Kenley Jansen, in late April, and another was against Jonny Venters, in late May. In the first one, Bryce Harper was wearing a Phiten magic necklace, and in the second one he was not. Somewhere between late April and late May, Bryce Harper either realized magic necklaces aren’t real, or he decided that they are real but they don’t work on his particular body chemistry, or he lost his. Magic necklaces obviously are real, and they obviously do work, no duh, or else why would all these athletes (and bat boys, and managers, and fans) wear them? I know what you’re probably going to say, but let me reiterate: Uh no duh.

So let’s figure out when Bryce Harper quit wearing it. I went through every game that produced a highlight of Bryce Harper on MLB.com, which is every game he has played in except two games. I’m going to assume that, when he wore one, it was visible, not tucked in; if I were to allow otherwise, this exercise would be impossible, and he wore it prominently when he did wear it, so I don’t think he’s a tucker. (But what if he’s wearing a bracelet? If he’s wearing a bracelet then we just have to live with our mistake.)

We have these stages of Bryce Harper:

April 28 through May 4: Phiten necklace wearer
May 5 through May 16: Occasional Phiten necklace wearer
May 17 through present: Not a Phiten necklace wearer

He wore the necklace on May 13 (pink, for Mother's Day) and May 16, but otherwise had a bare neck after May 5. (The two games with no Harper highlights, and excluded from this, are May 19 and May 28.)

It’s a total of eight games with, and 22 games without, and a total of 33 plate appearances with and 95 plate appearances without. (It's okay to use pseudoscientific sample sizes if you're evaluating pseudoscientific necklaces.) Now, scared of what I might find, I’m going to do the sums.

With the necklace, he has nine hits, five of them for extra bases, but no home runs. He has no stolen bases and was caught once. Without the necklace, he had 24 hits, 11 of them for extra bases, five of them over the wall. He has stolen two bases and been caught once. He has smashed his own face with a bat.

With the necklace, he has struck out every 5.5 plate appearances. Without, he has struck out every 7.3 plate appearances. But he walked more (every 6.6 plate appearances) with the necklace than without (every 7.9). And his overall slash stats:

With: .333/.424/.555
Without: .293/.389/.585

So he traded 25 points of OBP for 30 points of slugging. Not a great trade-off, on the field. On the other hand, he’s not giving away one of the most marketable brands in sports (Bryce Harper) for a pro bono endorsement of something really stupid.

2. Last we checked in on Joe Sheehan’s DiSar Award, Ramon Hernandez was the leader in the clubhouse, but with a historically low count of just 67 plate appearances to get his first unintentional walk. That was low enough, and Josh Harrison was Josh Harrison enough, that we all agreed it was unlikely to stand. Harrison has since walked, as did contender Andy Dirks, but Oakland's Josh Donaldson has taken the lead. He is 89 plate appearances into the season, and he is still walkless, a sacrifice fly lowering his OBP below his batting average.

It remains a bit surprising to see Donaldson making such a convincing run, since Donaldson is not a really notable hacker. He has five walks this year, five walks that happen to have come in the 13 games he played in the PCL. He has walked in 12 percent of his minor-league plate appearances. He is swinging at more pitches outside the zone this year, but at 36 percent (according to StatCorner’s methods), he’s no more likely to swing at a ball than Howie Kendrick, or Ryan Braun, or Mike Aviles, or other players with walks and names. He has swung a lot, but not nearly the most.

And so the answer is that pitchers don’t care about Josh Donaldson, so they just pump in strikes. No! That’s not the answer either, and stop jumping to conclusions. About 46 percent of the pitches he has seen have been in the strike zone. About 46 percent of the pitches Howie Kendrick has seen have been in the strike zone. About 46 percent of the pitches Mike Aviles has seen have been in the strike zone.

And the final guess—that Donaldson merely makes contact so steadily that his at-bats don’t extend long—also goes nowhere. He has whiffed both in and outside the strike zone a tick more often than Kendrick, and about 50 percent more often than Aviles. It isn’t as though Josh Donaldson is doing the most he can to draw a walk, but he’s not really inviting this, either. Josh Donaldson appears to just be a typical and unfortunate guy who is getting niche infamous for something he’s not really in control of. Thoughts and prayers.

If there is anything interesting about Donaldson, it is about how bad he has been, generally. The DiSar Award is not a complimentary award, but it does happen to decent ballplayers, and it does happen during otherwise decent seasons. At .148/.146/.239, Donaldson is threatening to be the worst DiSar victor ever. Previous champions, and their slash stats during the walkless stretches:

2000: Geoff Jenkins, .296/.314/.643
2001: A.J. Pierzynski, .274/.283/.379
2002: Randall Simon, .286/.311/.484
2003: Carl Crawford, .244/.250/.276
2004: Charles Thomas, .304/.347/.452
2005: Jeff Francoeur, .353/.372/.684
2006: Rondell White, .187/.196/.224
2007: Kevin Mench, .272/.273/.405
2008: Chase Headley, .276/.284/.506
2009: Cristian Guzman, .381/.381/.492
2010: Dayan Viciedo: .268/.268/.452

The origin of the award, as you probably know, was the quote by Gary DiSarcina stating that he would be perfectly content to go the entire season without walking. I’ve always viewed the DiSars as a measure of a player’s inability to draw a walk. But at least half of these DiSar-winning stretches suggest that in a lot of cases it’s more about the player’s self-perceived ability to get a hit. They’re hot, they must think, so why sit around taking pitches you know you can hit? When you get the invincibility star, you don’t sit around knocking blocks; you run! I don’t know if this is the right attitude to have, but it’s at least understandable.

Josh Donaldson does not have an invincibility star. He is simply running, and he is running into a lot of turtles, and this metaphor could go on forever if I don’t cut it off now.

3. I talked to Brian Downing the other day, because I’m writing the Brian Downing chapter of Marc Normandin and Sky Kalkman’s Hall of Very Good book. Before he became a star in Anaheim, Downing was run out of Chicago, and White Sox broadcaster Harry Caray was particularly critical of him. I asked Downing about it. It’s the best:

“He asked me about giving him a piece of gum in the dugout. I didn’t like some of his rants the previous night, and I said something, it wasn’t a big deal, but I said I’m not giving you anything. After that it was relentless.”

Is that how the Angels ended up getting the fourth-best player in their franchise history? Oh, probably not. But.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

1 comment has been left for this article.

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